Part 1 / Baku
No window in an airless cabin, the rhythm of the old engine vibrates across the surface of Professor Gul-our cargo ship that makes slow progress across the worlds largest lake, the Caspian Sea. We have spent so far 24 hours aboard this ship with scores of Turkish, Ukraine, Azerbaijan truck drivers plus 12 European travellers (4 motorbikers, 3 backpackers, 2 suitcase travellers and 3 cyclists). We dine together in the room and occupy ourselves chatting, reading, walking the decks and gazing out to sea, seeing very little. The odd trucker or crew pop out on the deck and occasional throw rubbish overboard ( out of sight out of mind). This is no cruise ship or European ferry. No shop, no alcohol and just the basics. The ship is a cargo ship which allows passengers on for a fee with a cabin and food included. The hull is full of approximately 45 full length trucks all heading into Kazakhstan and our bikes.
We spent a week in Baku waiting on our Uzbekistan Visa and for news of a cargo boat. We spent our time in Baku at a good Hostel/ hotel (baku palace) and met some interesting travellers there. We spent a couple of days in the company of Fernando from Madrid who had a great response to people who asked his age (which is a common question, plus marriage , kids etc), ‘ I’m 100’ he’d reply. We took in some of Baku’s architectural highlights, the old town and a trip to the fire temple and …just waited.
Bureaucracy has certainly reared its head over the last few days and my first confrontation with a women here occurred. Getting information on boat tickets and when the boat will leave has been a complex and at times a secretive matter. We used a middle man who arranged ticket reservations and the taxi as we were informed when we have news of a boat you need to be there in 1-2 hours and with 70 km distance was impossible to cycle, so an overpriced van took us to Alat where 4 motor bikers where already there plus an Irish backpacker ( who’d been there 24hrs already). The port in Alat is far from anything, but a mini bank and market merge from the desert like terrain. Tickets booked and paid for we joined the guys in a waiting game. Some 10 hours later we went through the border control and boarded the 185 metre ship. We were given windowless cabins and then put us with 2 men. This was when we met a rather angry women in charge of the domestic affairs!
We have been told we will arrive in Aktau port at 7am (26 hrs since departure) on 18.9.17. From across the Caspian Sea we enter a new world of the Stan’s, former Soviet Union regions.
Showered and feed we sit in a little hotel room in a dusty desert town, Beyneu in Kazakhstan after 5 testing cycling days in the semi desert from Aktau. We have spent our most remote and demanding cycling to date but also the most rewarding stretch. As we left the port after intense baggage searches we hit the road. Not long we meet 2 other cyclists (Chris & Dea) heading the same way and said see you on route. The next 3 days were beautiful, a desert full of interesting hills and geology, camels, wild horses and miles and miles of nothing. Our wild camping spots were also breathtaking, silent, incredible sunsets and sunrises, skies full of endless stars and the odd shooting star.
The road was in general good condition and very little traffic. A few hills and thankfully cloud cover so those days were not too punishing until the head winds kicked in. After 2 days of fighting both side and head winds we decided to try and hitch a lift as with only water/food around every 60km (a days cycling). A HGV stopped with 10 minutes of trying (too good to be true) and said meet me in 20 km as I will be having lunch at the next kaffe. So cycling focus on we tried against the winds but knew we wouldn’t make it and then on the horizon came a truck in the opposite direction. It was only him returning to find us. Unfortunately his plan was to put our bikes not in the truck but under the base and split us up into 2 trucks! We declined his kind offer and cycled until nightfall with the sun setting behind us we sort a resting place.
We continued the next days cycling until we reached a comfort stop and discarded our waste (in a bin) to see a perfect truck in the lay-by. Within minutes we had got a lift for 70km (a full cycle day). We passed Chris & Dea and gave them a cheery wave. We were dropped at a cay house (the only places to eat which come every 50-100km) and continued the rest of the day happy to be ahead. The following day the winds intensified so much that all our energies were needed just to get to about 7-10 kmph and they were depleting rapidly. My mental state was flagging and I hit a low point as we continued (but dreaming of plates of fresh fruit and cold beers helped). Then from nowhere 2 kind young guys (Azerbaijan and Turkish) in a car did a u turn and gave us frozen iced cold water, heaven and thank you again. Then our second piece of good luck came as another truck driver stopped and hauled our bikes and bags into the back of his lorry and we sat with beaming smiles in his cabin to cover the last 90km in Beyneu.
Today we waited 2 hours to buy (3rd class) train tickets into Uzbekistan to cover a further 700km of desert. We need a rest from desert cycling and our Uzbek visa started 2 days ago. So tonight we take a train into Uzbekistan and I’m sure that will be an eventful journey to Urgench.
Kazakhstan has been great and a place to revisit, the people are warm and interesting and the change in ethnicity has been instant as we hit Central Asia. But we wish we could speak Russian!